The Only Thing I’ve Ever Wanted

As the days and hours march inexorably towards the launch of Yosemite and iOS 8 this fall, I find my thoughts turning more and more to the fabled and much-rumored iWatch. I’ve been trying to think of what Apple could possibly offer in such a wearable device that might get me to jump in and buy one if it will indeed exist. I don’t need a time piece, I haven’t actually worn a watch in years. I stopped wearing them around the time the iPhone came out, as I’m sure many people did. I’ve read the pitiful reviews of Samsung’s early efforts with smart watches and unsurprisingly was less than impressed. Even if the design of these devices was more elegant and sleek than they currently are, the feature sets just wouldn’t be enough for me to wear both a smart watch and carry around my trusty iPhone.

In order to be desirable, Apple’s iWatch has to fulfill a need that I currently don’t know I have. While this sounds like typical Apple fanboy BS, strangely enough it actually does make sense. Steve Jobs once famously said “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” and I firmly believe this. One thing that Apple does, perhaps better than any other company on the planet, is to elicit desire in people for their products. They do this by identifying key customer needs, and then meticulously design a simple and elegant solution. One so beautiful and easy to use the public doesn’t understand why it hasn’t been there all along. I really think this will be the case with the iWatch. Some of these feature sets have been speculated since day one. Perhaps some kind of intelligent notification system, health monitor or location aware smart assistant are in the cards but again, I’m not sure any of these would make me crave it.

I am sure the iWatch will not replace a user’s iPhone. The margins on these devices just won’t be high enough for that kind of strategy. Logically, a wearable iDevice would extend the functions of your iPhone (or Mac) to give you more control over your digital life. I just sat down at my Mac, so don’t send that IM to my iPhone, iPad and Mac, just my iPhone. Wouldn’t that be great? Yeah it sure would but it could also be done by simply making your iPhone smarter. My phone goes everywhere I go, I don’t need something like an iRing for that.

Unfortunately that leads us back to square one and perhaps it’s for the best. Trying to outguess Tim Cook’s Apple may be a fun diversion for bloggers and tech mavens but personally I’d rather give the talented folks at Apple the benefit of the doubt. I’m confident that if and when the iWatch does arrive it be simple to use, beautiful to look at and most of all make perfect sense. As Futurama’s Philip J. Fry once said, “Whatever is in there, it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted!” You took the words right out of our mouths, Phillip.

Go Buy Monument Valley. Now.

Chances are you’ve probably already heard all about the stunning new game from developer ustwo – Monument Valley that was released today. If the game is new to you, then let’s just clear the air right now – go buy it on the app store for your iOS device. Now. This is one of those instances where a piece of software is so stunningly beautiful, and provides such an incredibly rich experience, you’re really missing something if you take a pass. Here are just some of the things you’ll see in this amazing casual puzzler:

There’s a great deal to love in Monument Valley. From it’s rich, varied color palettes that change from level to level, to the extremely clever, M.C. Escher-like design of its levels, to the gorgeous soundtrack and audio effects, Monument Valley delivers at every turn. From the moment you start to play, it’s obvious how much love and attention the folks at ustwo have put into their creation. They’ve managed to design a complete gaming experience and bring it to you via the App Store for a minimal price. Too often games these days are filled with in-app purchases that prey on instant gratification to keep players interested. Monument Valley eschews all that in favor of creating a compelling, finite and beautiful environment for you to get lost in for a few hours of your life. The last few levels in particular are wildly inventive and especially challenging.

If you’ve read the reviews, then you probably know that Monument Valley’s play time is short. It took me a total of about 3 hours (off and on) from start to finish to complete all of the levels, and for some, that length may be a deal breaker. If you feel that way I have news for you – many awesome things in life are short but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of your time or money. You’ll probably spend more on your next meal out than you would on Monument Valley but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy both while they last. The game creators have said they focused on making a concise title that can be completed in a short amount of time on purpose. While this may be true, it doesn’t really matter to me because I know if the game is a success (which I certainly hope it is) then we’ll probably be seeing a great deal more of the mystical world of Monument Valley. Show your support of their efforts to bring you something wonderful and head over to the App Store and buy it, gift it and help spread the word by leaving a review today.

Ollie Flies Free(mium)

Today marks a new beginning for Twitterrific, the venerable third party Twitter client from the Iconfactory. Today we’re announcing the app is now free to download from it’s normal price of $2.99. We’ve added several in-app purchases to the app to help cover the cost of push notifications and tweet translation, but the bulk of the revenue to continue development will now come from Deck Network ads that will appear above the timeline. Twitterrific has been available in the App Store since day one and we’ve experimented with both paid and free revenue models. Why are we returning to the freemium model now? Simply put, we’re hoping that by making the app free to download and use, we’ll get Twitterrific into the hands of thousands more people and those additional users will help support development via the increased ad revenue far into the future. The best part is that thanks to new App Store receipt handling in iOS 7, existing paid users are grandfathered into the new model and don’t have to restore any purchases. The app, with all it’s features, just works.

There are lots of risks with moving to this type of revenue model, but version 4 of Twitterrific was by far our most successful and that version was supported by ad revenue from The Deck. No doubt levels of support will increase dramatically for us but that’s part of the trade-off of having successful, thriving software. I’m also personally curious to see if moving to the free model and increasing the app’s downloads by at least 1 or 2 orders of magnitude will improve Twitterrific’s search results in the App Store. Having the very first 3rd party Twitter app in the App Store returned after non-twitter clients in a search has never seemed right to me. If you’ve never tried Twitterrific in the past, there’s no reason left not to give it a go now and we also hope you’ll help us spread the word!

The Rise of Mobile Games

The rise of mobile gaming is of interest to many people, both technology lovers and historians. In the last 20 years mobile gaming has really taken off, especially gaming on tablets. Whether it be Angry Birds or poker, the majority of us have played on a mobile device. This info-graphic from www.jackpotcity.co.uk details the rise in mobile gaming in geeky fashion. It’s impossible to say for certain what the future of mobile gaming holds, but from the looks of it, it’s going to be exciting. Click the image to see the entire info graphic.

Cosmos Mobile Wallpaper

I’ve created a simple, fun wallpaper for your iPhone or iPad to help commemorate the premiere of the new Cosmos series on Fox. If you love all things space, head on over to the updated Goodies page to download the wallpaper for your iDevice of choice. Don’t forget to also check out my profile on Dribbble for more fun iOS downloads.

The Bezel’s the Thing

It doesn’t take tea leaves or even a leaked report from the Wall St. Journal to figure out Apple will probably release a new model of iPhone with a larger screen later this year. Users have been begging for more screen real estate, especially with the increased attention of larger-screened devices like the Samsung Galaxy. Also, Apple typically does full product revisions on a 2-year cycle which just happens to hit for the iPhone this fall. All of these factors may create the “perfect iStorm” that users have been patiently waiting for. From a personal standpoint, I would love an iPhone with something around a 4.75″ screen because the older I get, the more I seem to squint and miss-tap at the tiny interface elements of my iPhone 5c.

The report from the Journal seems to hint at two new sizes of iPhones, one somewhere around 4.75″ and another, larger device possibly measuring 5.5″ diagonally. I freely admit that speculating about the screen sizes of these non-existant devices is mostly wishful thinking, but that’s part of the fun. What would your ultimate iPhone look like? What size screen would it sport and more importantly, what’s the new form factor going to be like? For all the talk about screen size, I think the more important aspect of the next iPhone will be the design of the bezel. The bezel is the border around the screen that offsets the display from the edge of the device. Recent rumors suggest that the new iPhone 6 will have little or no bezel between the screen and the left and right edge. If true, this is a far more exciting development, at least for me, than just upping the screen size.

It’s no secret that the industrial design team at Apple has long sought to create a display that’s essentially a continuous piece of solid glass, edge to edge when held in the hand. Such a design would result in a screen that seems to end where your hand begins. Now with advances in Sapphire glass technology and with 7 years of experience under Apple’s belt, the dream of a nearly invisible bezel may soon become a reality. Removing the bezel won’t be a slam dunk however, as there are most certainly software considerations that need to be worked out. Accidental taps and swipes at the edge of the screen would probably increase without some kind of UI “neutral zone” at the perimeter of the display. Designing protective cases that don’t interfere with touching or swiping would also be a challenge, but hardly impossible.

If the rumors are true and the iPhone 6 will have a bezel of around 1mm, it will certainly make for a stunning, refreshed visual appearance at a time when the iPhone seems stagnant. Apple’s supporters note the company is selling record numbers of iPhones even though the form factor hasn’t changed for several years and that is true. It is also true however that users have been hungry for larger devices as well as ones that look and feel different from the existing models to help set them apart from their peers. From the stunning introduction of the retina display to the increased security and cool factor of Touch ID, Apple fans love owning the new hotness. Come this fall, I’m willing to bet a big part of the “heat” won’t be what Apple has added, but rather what they’ve removed – the bezel.

iObservations

This week I finally upgraded to a brand new iPhone 5c after almost 2 full years of use on my trusty iPhone 4s. I’ve now spent a couple days with the new device running iOS 7 and wanted to share some random observations (both good and bad) for what they’re worth. As with anything, your milage may vary.

The Good

AT&T LTE – I mean just look at it!

Siri’s new voice – It’s so much better than before. Feels very Star Trek.

New ring and alert tones – There’s been some fun made of these but overall I really like them. The majority have a light, fun feel that seems to fit perfectly with the new iOS 7. My ringtone is currently set to Sencha and my alert tone is Chord. Groovy!

OS 7′s folders – Worlds better than the one in use in iOS 5 & 6 the new folders are clean, easy to manage & hold more apps.

Background refreshing – We implemented it in Twitterrific and I can already tell it will be one of my favorite features of the new OS. Having content ready for you when you wake the device is killer. Jury’s still out on how it will affect battery life however.

The feel – The feel of the 5c in the hand is just as I imagined it would be. It has the smooth, comfy feel of the 3gs without the extra bezels. It feels rock solid in your hand, not like you’d expect from a plastic phone.

Use of color – Much has been made of the, let’s just say “bold” use of color in iOS 7, some good, but mostly bad. Personally I love it. I love the way your wallpaper setting for instance changes how interfaces like the dialer screen looks. Make an overall change here and the whole user experience feels fresh. Bravo Apple.

Command Center – Being able to turn off blue tooth at will as well as quick access to a flashlight (don’t laugh, it’s useful!) is just great. I can’t wait until I have a use for sharing a file via AirDrop.

Multi-image emails – The ease of use selecting multiple images from your camera roll to attach to a single email is simply fabulous.

The Not-So-Good

Missing share buttons – Apple removed the ability to tweet and post to Facebook right from Notification Center for some reason. I’m not sure why, but this was a great way to quickly get a tweet out without any fuss. You can still do it via Siri, but it’s too prone to errors. Hopefully these controls will be coming back.

Multiple chargers – I like the new smaller, 10 pin charger but my iPad 3 still uses the old 30-pin version. This means I have to keep two different kinds of cords around my home to charge my devices. This stinks. Speaking of charging…

RIP iHome Clock – It will no longer work with my new iPhone 5c’s 10-pin charger port. This makes me very very sad.

RIP Olloclip – Designed for my iPhone 4, my Olloclip is now a useless hunk of metal and glass sitting on my desk. Again, sad.

The feel – Yes, I love the feel of the new 5c, but even though it feels super awesome, it’s also super slippery in the hand. As my wife said, it feels like it’s “coated in butter”. I immediately went out and bought an ugly Apple case for it simply because I just knew I’d eventually drop it. I hate to cover the wonderful plastic up but i’m scared it will slip right out of my hand. I sat it on the arm of my couch and watched it sloooowly slide right off into my lap. It’s crazy smooth.

Ugly icons – I realize I’m being a kind of icon snob here, but I just can’t warm up to the horrible Settings and Safari icons. The fact that they are two of the most important destinations on my iPhone means I have to look at them all the time and I just cringe when I do. Really hope the designers at Apple re-visit these at some point.

Overall I’m extremely happy with with my iPhone upgrade. There’s no doubt that it was time to replace my 4s. The only real choice was if I wanted to move to a 5s or a 5c. I’m extremely happy with how the new phone feels in my hands. The plastic case is top notch and doesn’t have the kinds of beveled edges that made my 4s hard to pick up and hold. Will I miss the finger print scanner, better camera and 64-bit processor of the 5s? Probably, but I’m betting a year from now we’ll see a new model that will have all of these things plus a larger screen and maybe the awesome case of the 5c. If you currently own an iPhone 5, then the 5c may not be the way to go, but if you’re like me coming from the previous model, you just might consider taking the colorful path to plastic town.

Why I’m Buying an iPhone 5c

I’ve owned an iPhone 4s for almost 2 years now and had been patiently awaiting the successor to the iPhone 5 until this week. When the 5 was first introduced, I was off-cycle for a discounted upgrade from AT&T and when I finally was eligible I thought I might as well just wait and see. I was hoping the increasing popularity of larger-screened smartphones would encourage Apple to release at least an iPhone with a 4.6″ screen in their next rev, but as I tweeted this past week, it seems Tim Cook’s pigs have yet to fly.

Now I have a choice to make. I can go with the fancy new iPhone 5s, complete with 64-bit hardware, a greatly improved camera and a cool fingerprint scanner, or I can “settle” for a 5 wrapped in a lickable, candy-coated plastic shell, the iPhone 5c. The gadget freak in me says to go with the snazzy 5s. After all, its increased speed would hold up better over the next 1.5-2 years and the pictures I took would no doubt be greatly improved from those I snap now. The 5s is more expensive, but that wasn’t the deciding factor, at least not for me.

I’ve chosen to go with the iPhone 5c for a couple reasons, but mainly because of comfort. For my money, the most comfortable smartphone to hold and use was the iPhone 3GS. Its slightly rounded back, smooth plastic construction and tight edges made it a joy to hold and use. When the iPhone 4 was introduced, I really didn’t like the device’s form factor. The metal band creates sharp edges that fatigue the fingers and collect dirt. In addition, to me the device is *too* thin to hold safely without a case. The new iPhone 5c’s smooth curves, and seamless sides call out to the scifi geek in me and the colors, oh the colors! It’s much more streamlined, minimal in appearance and seems easier to pick up off the table. I must admit however, if I could have the 5s’ guts inside the smooth, plastic shell of the 5c, I’d opt for that in a plastic heartbeat.

I know that no matter which model I pick, either will be a great upgrade from my 4s. Although it’s served me well these last two years, I’m more than ready for the increased screen size, faster processor power and increased battery life of a new iPhone. With any luck, around this time next year Apple will be introducing a 4.6″ iPhone that will sport an all new form-factor as well as all the neat-o gadgets that are sure to make the iPhone 5s a huge success. In the meantime, unlike Kermit, it’s easy being green.

PS – iOS 7 is awesome, you’re gonna love it!

Watershed Moment

Ever since Apple announced iOS 7 at WWDC, developers have been coming to grips with what the new operating system will mean for them. There’s little doubt iOS 7 represents a huge opportunity for developers to get their updated products in front of massive numbers of new users almost overnight. But there’s another opportunity here for developers, one that’s been largely ignored up until now – paid upgrades. To be more precise, all new, iOS 7 paid versions of existing applications.

I’m sure many users are expecting developers of popular applications to simply update interface elements, compile some code and easily drop a brand spanking new version of their app onto the App Store for free. There’s little doubt that the majority of iOS 7 updates to existing apps will be free (which will please Apple), but I suspect there will be a surprising number of developers who will use the launch of the new operating system to completely re-boot their app, and why not? The visual and interactive paradigms iOS 7 mark a natural breaking off point and a perfect opportunity to re-coup costs. Some existing paid apps might even adopt an iOS 7 only strategy which means they’ll have no choice but to charge again.

As any developer knows, software doesn’t magically grow on trees. Significant reworks of existing apps can represent hundreds of hours of development time and depending on the complexity of the apps in question, require much more than simply updating graphics. Taking full advantage of new APIs, designing new interactions and more can represent a healthy investment, time is money after all. At what point in the update process does a developer decide she needs to charge for it? How many users will be alienated by charging again? Will these users be offset by the *huge* influx of new people Apple brings to the table with the launch of the new OS?

Perhaps a better way to answer the question might be, how willing would you be to re-purchase your favorite apps if they are optimized for iOS 7? Look at your device’s home screen and go down the list of apps you use most and ask yourself if you could live without it once you upgrade. I think that most users (at least those that matter to developers) would answer that they would gladly pay again if it means having the latest and greatest version of their favorite apps, at least I would hope so.

With the full-priced launch of Logic Pro X, it’s now pretty clear Apple won’t be implementing a paid upgrade mechanism in the App Store. Developers are forced into either giving free upgrades for life, nickel-and-diming users with in-app purchases or occasionally launching new, paid versions of their apps. At the Iconfactory, we typically offer new paid version of our apps (xScope, Twitterrific) about every 18 months with many free upgrades in between. Though there are always users who will complain about having to pay for all-new versions, the vast majority know that in order for an app to survive and flourish, they occasionally have to do their part and support its development. Hopefully the upcoming wave of apps updated for iOS 7, both free and paid, will help people fall in love with their apps all over again.

UPDATE: Just when you thought there was hope, a new report out indicates that the average price of apps in the App Store is now at an all-time low of just $0.19. Consumers continue to expect world-class software experiences in exchange for basically nothing. The author says that the freemium model may be a “wiser business move” in the long run but I disagree. It is much harder to recoup the cost of development if you have to postpone revenue much beyond launch of your product, especially if you cannot even guarantee success. If the trend continues, I don’t see how developers can make a living on the App Store.

Owning Your App Store Review

There are basically two kinds of people who leave software reviews in the App Store. The first are users who genuinely want to add their voice to the chorus of users who have downloaded the software. They want to let other potential users know what they’ve learned in the hopes of helping them make an informed buying decision. They may encounter problems with the app, but overall they try to be open minded, fair and leave generally helpful reviews. If an app is good they generally say so. If a piece of software is poorly designed or implemented and deserves a low rating these users will go out of their way to describe why, which is great.

The second type of people who leave reviews do so for a simple reason – spite. They feel slighted by their purchase and want to do their very best to try and punish the developer in their small way by assigning a single star. They often accompany such reviews with unhelpful prose like “This app sucks, fix it!” or “Worst app I ever bought!” and so on and so on. These kinds of reviews are less than helpful to the developer of course, especially since Apple doesn’t currently provide a way for an app’s developer to easily get in contact with a review’s author.

As a developer, I’d love to be able to get in touch with both of these kinds of users to find out what I could be doing better with my software. Sometimes it’s possible to google someone’s App Store user name and track down a contact link, but more often it’s not. That’s why I recently decided I was going to start leaving my Twitter username in all my reviews I wrote on the App Store. Leaving a tangible point of contact for a developer gives them a way to reach out to you if you have specific issues with an app. Contacting them directly with your concerns is always best of course, but if you do leave a review, consider leaving your Twitter / contact info in the body of the review.

If you’re the type of user that wants to help improve an app, who wants to support the development of quality software through meaningful dialog, then owning your review would seem to be a no-brainer. And to all the one-star trolls who call the App Store home, I leave this sage piece of advice from my mom – If you can’t say something helpful, shut your damn pie hole!*

* I’m paraphrasing here

Olloclip: Up Close & Personal

The Olloclip is a handy 3-in-one lens attachment for the iPhone 4 and 4S that lets you take wide angle, fisheye or macro shots rather easily. The clip itself is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand or your pocket and is easily attached simply by sliding it directly over the lens of iPhone’s built-in camera. The Olloclip contains a funky fisheye lens on one side and a wide angle lens on the other. This wide angle lens can be unscrewed to reveal the macro lens which allows you to take super close-ups (12-15mm) which are great for getting shots of insects, fauna or surface textures.

I’ve been using my Olloclip for the past few months and I have to say I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve always been interested in macro photography but didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on expensive SLR’s and associated lenses. While the images the Olloclip produces may not be National Geographic quality, I’ve found them to be quite good, and certainly good enough to satisfy my hobby. I initially bought the clip to photograph a few Swallowtail caterpillars who had made their home on some parsley I had planted. The shots came out so good, I was soon hooked and have found myself constantly looking for fun macro subject matter. Head over to my Flickr set of Olloclip macro shots to see some examples I’ve posted.

While the macro lens is by far my favorite feature of the Olloclip, the wide angle has also come in handy. I love being able to get a more complete image when snapping a picture of a room or a group of people with the Olloclip, although I have found that the resulting images seem dimmed at the very fringe of the optics. I’ve read that real estate agents LOVE the Olloclip’s wide angle feature and I can understand why. The fisheye lens is fun for unique occasions, but too funky for every day use. Every picture taken with the fisheye looks like you’re looking out a peephole, great as a novelty but the resulting images are too strange for every day use.

About the only downside I can see to the product is that it can only be used when your iPhone is naked. If you keep your iPhone in a case (even an extremely thin one) then you must remove it from the case in order to slip on the Olloclip. I completely understand why this is necessary, it just increases the time and effort it takes to get the shot you want, especially if you’re shooting a finicky subject like bugs. By the time you get your case off, the Olloclip on and the wide angle lens unscrewed, your butterfly may be long gone. I also wish it was “universal” in design and worked on both the iPhone and the iPad, although admittedly I don’t see how a single design could accommodate both devices.

The Olloclip started life as a Kickstarter campaign that raised the necessary funding and began production in June of 2011. It can be purchased in Apple retail stores or online for around $65 and is well worth the price. Considering similar SLR lenses will set you back hundreds of dollars, the Olloclip is a great way for amateurs to have their photographic cake and eat it too. Macworld gave the Olloclip four out of five mice, and the rating was well deserved. It’s a joy to use and has increased my love of digital photography by an order of magnitude. I highly recommend it.

Entrenched

Over the past few years, there’s been a significant increase in the polarization of people’s opinions in this country. More and more, folks are unwilling to put themselves in other people’s shoes, to see their side of the story or even just listen to what they have to say. Increasingly, we as a society are either unwilling or unable to compromise on important topics that affect the vast majority of us. I’m not sure where or when this started, but I do think much of it has to do with the Internet.

Since it came into wide-spread adoption, the Internet has been a way for people of widely varied viewpoints to express themselves on any number of topics. We can read, post, blog and tweet all from the comfort of our own homes and what we say is seen by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. More importantly, when we say something online we do so from the relative safety of digital anonymity. Although some people hide behind pseudonyms online, these days it’s more common to see people representing themselves honestly and openly. Just because they do however, doesn’t mean that we “know” them or are friends with them or even have met them in real life and I think that is an important distinction.

When we sit down and have a conversation with our family, friends or even acquaintances, we often censor ourselves for the good of our relationships. We may think someone’s opinion isn’t valid or is something we consider to be foolish, but we probably won’t tell them that to their face. Instead we often try and steer those we disagree with towards mutual understanding, we give and take, we compromise. I love my family very much but I disagree heartedly with many of their political viewpoints. When I get into a discussion about these topics with them, I don’t call my Uncle an idiot or a bozo, I calmly listen to his opinion, and if I’m feeling feisty I’ll attempt to convey some opposing viewpoints. If he listens great, if he entrenches himself and refuses to hear what I’m saying I often change the subject and move on. I love him too much to risk hurting him or his feelings and so I censor myself to some degree. I firmly believe it’s for the best.

But when I frequent political blogs and forums and told I’m an “ignorant liberal” or when I tweet about Apple’s court victory over Samsung and am called a “typical Apple fanboi”, the people that do so have no pretenses about censoring themselves. Indeed, I too am more likely to let loose when I’m exchanging ideas and thoughts with someone I’ve only met online than I would if I were sitting with them face-to-face in a restaurant or coffee shop. Yesterday, Macworld editor Dan Frakes tweeted this about Apple’s original iPhone:

As soon as I saw that tweet, I knew Dan was in for an earful. I had tweeted several times on Friday about the $1.01B judgement against Samsung by Apple and was not prepared for the amount of staunch anti-Apple sentiment that flowed into my Twitter timeline as a result. It seems that in platforms, as in politics, people have firmly chosen sides. You’re either with us or your against us and for some reason there can be no middle ground. I make my living using Apple products and have enjoyed them for well over 20 years so I have a strong affinity for technology that comes out of Cupertino. I also like to think that I’m fairly objective and have criticized Apple when I strongly disagree with a position they take. Sadly, some don’t see it this way. Apple is either the perfect corporate citizen who can do no wrong or a demon that is out to destroy open standards and lock all smartphone users into walled gardens manned by underage Chinese workers from Foxconn.

The reality, of course, is somewhere in-between. Apple’s victory over Samsung can be right and just in accordance with U.S. patent law but that doesn’t mean they “invented rounded rectangles”. It also shouldn’t mean that you and I can’t have a friendly discussion on the topic without it devolving into the digital equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show. Admittedly, when we are so entrenched in our positions it is difficult to give up any ground, especially when one feels passionately about something. However, if we are to survive and flourish as a society and have meaningful conversations, we all need to try and make a concerted effort to climb out of our fox holes and meet somewhere in the middle.

Lost Cities Tips & Tricks

Lost Cities is a new game for iPhone from TheCodingMonkeys, publishers of the hugely popular Carcassonne. Based on the award winning card game by Reiner Knizia, Lost Cities takes elements of solitaire and combines them with vibes of Uno and Go Fish into a compelling game for two people or a single player vs any one of four AI opponents.

The game is easy to learn (I won’t go into the full rules here) thanks to the wonderful spoken in-game tutorials, but the basic object is to score points by playing cards of increasing value in any one of five, colored channels. Whichever player has the most points when all the cards from the draw pile have been played, wins. Since the Iconfactory did much of the graphical work for Lost Cities, I was generously given early access to the pre-release and have been playing a great deal this past week. I’ve learned a lot in that time and I wanted to share some of the insights I’ve had with would-be challengers.

Practice Against the AI

It may seem straight forward but playing the various computer opponents is a great way to get a feel for Lost Cities. Playing the AI means the game proceeds quickly since you don’t have to wait for a human friend to move. Getting into a rhythm in LC really helps you to understand how points are scored, cards are held or discarded and what to watch for.

Watch the Draw Pile

The game continues only as long as there are cards to draw so keep a close eye on the number of cards left in the pile in the lower right of the interface. When that number reaches zero, the game is over so it’s important to know how many turns are left. Don’t wait until the last few turns to play your big cards if you can help it. Also, remember that the number of turns is just about one half of the number of cards left in the deck. It’s easy to look at 18 on the deck and think you have that many turns left, but you really don’t, you have approximately 9!

Ditch the 2′s and 3′s

Unless you’re trying to make a run and score 8+ cards in a channel, you might want to start a channel with a 4 or even a 5. Low cards don’t yield many points anyway and probably won’t make a huge difference in the final outcome. This isn’t always the case of course, but games can easily be won by just playing the higher number cards alone.

Remember to Look Up

It’s easy to get so focused on what cards you have in your own hand that you forget to pay attention to what your opponent is doing. You’re not the only one at the table who has a strategy! Don’t forget to pay attention to what cards she is pulling from the discard piles or what color channels they seem to be favoring. You may be holding some great cards, but always remember Lost Cities isn’t just about scoring your own points, but also trying to block your opponent’s as well.

The Nitty Gritty

Don’t forget that you can re-draw from the discard pile if a card you previously got rid of is now needed. This can come in quite handy when cards of certain colors start to present themselves. Also, listen for the audio cues in the game like the little “tink” sound that lets you know a channel has just crossed the boundary from negative to positive point totals. Lastly, when playing the AI, don’t forget you can pause at any time and take a break. Maybe a refreshing drink or walk around the block will clear your head and help you crush Ms. Lindenbrock.

I love games like Carcassonne and Lost Cities because they combine elements of skill and luck in fun and engaging ways. They are also played at your own pace which is wonderful, especially in the age of first-person shooters and nerve-wracking puzzlers. TheCodingMonkeys have gone above and beyond to make Lost Cities both addictive and fun to play. It takes all of the best elements of Reiner Knizia’s original card game and adds wonderful features like automatic score keeping, tough AI opponents, beautifully rich graphics and and soundtrack that feels like it belongs in the cinema instead of a game. If you enjoy turn-based strategy or card games, I urge you to check out Lost Cities for the iPhone today. Enjoy!

The Murky Future of 3rd Party Twitter Apps

Magic 8-Ball, it’s been a while but I have some questions about Twitter’s recent blog post. You know, the one where they talked about “stricter guidelines” for how the Twitter API is to be used by third party apps. Since Twitter isn’t talking, I was hoping you might be able to clear some stuff up for me. Can I ask you some questions now?

Yes

All this talk about stricter guidelines and a “consistent Twitter experience” seems pretty ominous, should developers of 3rd party Twitter apps like me be worried?

Reply hazy, try again

I mean some people are calling Twitter’s non-announcement a “bombshell”. Are things really that bad?

Better not tell you now

What do you mean? Are you saying that 3rd party apps are about to become extinct or that Twitter just wants each app to display the timeline in a similar fashion?

Concentrate and ask again

I know Twitter’s got to start making serious money to pay for it’s massive overhead, are we talking about ads in the timeline?

Outlook good

If we’re talking about ads, I can deal with that. I’d rather have promoted tweets in Twitterrific than being forced to stop developing it completely.

What about expanded tweets, will Twitter force us to build some form of them into our apps?

Signs point to yes

If we don’t, do you really think Twitter would restrict API access and hang 3rd party apps out to dry?

Better not tell you now

That’s very comforting, thanks.

Don’t you think Twitter’s users would revolt if they took away our Tweetbots, Hibaris and Twitterrifics?

As I see it, yes

Damn straight they would. There are many developers and companies who have build their livelihood around the Twitter API since 2007. We even helped Twitter evolve and grow to where it is today. Are you saying none of that matters now?

Without a doubt

Frak.

Some developers are already suggesting we start creating a web-based, open alternative to Twitter using something like RSS. Would that really work? Would users really switch away from Twitter for a grass-roots service?

Don’t count on it

Do you think it’s a good idea for developers like us to keep coding away on their apps for now?

Most likely

Could the folks at Twitter have done a better job with their blog post to help stop the spread of paralyzing FUD?

It is certain

You really haven’t been much help to me. One last question…

Is the golden age of 3rd party Twitter apps over?

Ask again later

Meh! What do you know, anyway!

Fixing Home Sharing’s TV Troubles

iTunes Home Sharing is a wonderful feature that’s designed to let you share media libraries between multiple Macs, iOS devices and Apple TV. If you have Home Sharing turned on and a solid Wi-Fi connection, you don’t need to fill your iPad with movies and TV shows you’ve downloaded to watch them. Simply connect to your Mac’s media library via the Videos app, select the shared library and iTunes will present you with a list of all of your movies and TV shows. I own lots of TV show episodes, some I’ve ripped from my DVDs and some purchased directly from iTunes. Home Sharing should allow me to get quick access to all of them any time I want. At least that’s the theory.

The Problem

When browsing music and movies via iTunes Home Sharing, media is displayed as one would expect. Movies are listed alphabetically by title and music arranged into playlists that can be navigated and played easily either via Apple TV or an iDevice. Unfortunately, TV shows are a whole different story. TV shows don’t always display in the proper order when browsed on Apple TV or iDevices via Home Sharing. Furthermore, certain TV show seasons will display multiple times or even worse, simply not appear at all. When this happens, it’s impossible to select the series and episode you want to watch making Home Sharing effectively useless. So what’s going on?

The Cause

I recently spent several long nights experimenting with my iTunes media library learning what was causing some TV shows to appear multiple times, others appear out of order and some just not at all. I read several support threads at Apple that explained how a TV show’s meta data can confuse iTunes’ Home Sharing feature if not set correctly. What is metadata? It’s the information that is assigned to a file in iTunes such as the show’s title, season number, episode ID and so on. Selecting a song, movie or TV show in iTunes and then getting information on it (cmd-I) will reveal the file’s metadata and allow you to edit it.

The root of the trouble seems to be that unlike movies which are stand alone entities, and songs, which can be part of an album, TV shows are not only broken down by series title (the TV version of an “Album”), but also by season. This two-tierd level of sorting can be extremely confusing for the user since it’s not always obvious how iTunes decides what comes first, second, third and so on. In addition, there appears to be a quirk in iTunes where if values of a television show’s metadata (like episode ID) conflict with other episodes of that same TV show, the series simply won’t display in Home Sharing. Finally, to make matters worse, often times the metadata of a TV show isn’t set consistently by the publisher from season to season or even from episode to episode. Mis-numbered or conflicting episode ID’s, especially within the same TV series across multiple seasons, throws iTunes into a tailspin and leads to problems.

In the above example you can see that I have downloaded two seasons of the BBC series Sherlock. Both season 1 and season 2 have the correct season metadata set, but the individual episodes have duplicate episode ID’s. Season two’s episode ID’s are labeled “1, 2, 3, 101 and 102″ when they should be labeled “201, 202, 203, 204 and 205″. Because the season 2 episodes use ID numbers that conflict with those in season 1, Home Sharing freaks out and in this instance displays the series out of order. Making matters worse, some publishers include the season number in the name of a show’s title, like “The Walking Dead; Season 2″ which causes problems when an iPhone or iPad polls for how to display the program.

Lastly, the strangest thing I learned in my investigations was that it appears improperly labeled metadata for one show can affect the display properties of a completely different television show as well. So until you correct the metadata of every single TV episode in your iTunes library, random problems may persist when trying to display them. It really makes no sense, but in my testing this was the case.

The Fix

The solution to the problem lies in making the show’s title, season numbers and episode ID’s logical and consistent throughout your entire iTunes library. If you have a fairly large collection of television show episodes it will take you some time to edit them and correct the display problems, but it is indeed fixable.

Follow these steps:

• Select tv episodes (one at a time or in batches) & press command-I
• Select the “Info” tab
• Set the show’s “Name” field to the title of the episode itself
• Set the “Album” field to the name of the series

Note: When naming a series with multiple seasons, it’s important to use the same naming on each episode. For instance, don’t name one episode’s Album “The Big Bang Theory” and another’s “Big Bang Theory”. Pick a naming convention and use it for all episodes of that television program to help eliminate problems.

Next:

• Select the “Video” tab
• Set the “Show” field to the name of the series (the same one used in the Album field) & remove any qualifiers like “Season 1″ etc
• Set the “Season Number”, episode ID and episode number to their proper values

Note: When setting episode ID’s, each one should be unique to that series. Typically, 101 would be season 1, episode 1. 202 would be season 2, episode 2 and so on. It’s crucial that each episode within each TV show has a unique, and logical ID number or the show won’t display correctly and could affect other show’s listings as well.

Lastly:

• Select the “Sorting” tab
• Make sure that the Album name matches that in the Video tab
• As a precaution I also removed any information contained in any of the sorting fields of this tab. The album name seems to be enough for iTunes to find and display the show correctly so the rest is unnecessary

Once you have updated all of the metadata on all of your TV shows, each series should appear only once and in the proper season order in Home Sharing. You may need to exit and kill the video app, relaunch it and re-connect to your shared media library to actually see the changes take effect. If a show is still out of order, or doesn’t appear, then an offending bit of metadata is still out there. You’ll need to hunt it down and correct it, but when all is said and done your TV show library should look something like this.

Conclusions

As frustrating and time consuming as this process can be, seeing a properly ordered, shared TV show library is extremely satisfying, especially if you’re as obsessed with organization as I am. I’d write a developer radar report for these issues but honestly, I’m not even sure why it occurs, or even if it’s really a bug. It seems more likely iTunes is just finicky about logical, non-conflicting metadata. Unfortunately, each file has so many fields of data it’s difficult to tell which one should be set to what value, resulting in user frustration. The good news is that armed with the information above, and a little patience, you too can whip your Home Sharing library into tip-top shape. Just be sure to bring along some popcorn and a sense of humor.

Ski Safari: 007 Edition

Lately I’ve been playing a great deal of Ski Safari, a wonderful casual game from Defiant Development for iOS. The game is a high score climber similar to the awesome Tiny Wings, in which you play play Sven, a skier trying to stay ahead of an ever-approaching avalanche. The object of the game is to simply get as far as possible, picking up coins, speed boosts and various forms of animals like penguins and even Yeti’s in a high-paced race to stay alive. Developers Brendan Watts & Shawn Eustace have done a marvelous job of making Ski Safari fun, addictive and immensely satisfying to play. I have a bit of a competition going on with a few of my friends as we play a high-stakes game of one-upmanship on the snowy slopes of the high Alps.

The game is pretty awesome as it’s designed, but I recently discovered I could make amp up the coolness by a factor of 10 or so simply by turning off the default music in the game and substituting my own action-packed soundtrack. And what soundtracks are best suited for racing down snow-covered mountains at breakneck speeds? Why none other than the ultimate spy, James Bond, of course! If you own any of theme tracks from the James Bond films, simply start them playing on loop and then turn off the in-game music to give yourself the ultimate action sequence experience. I’ve found that “Runaway” from Roger Moore’s For Your Eyes Only and “Bond 77” from The Spy Who Loved Me, are the perfect Ski Safari tracks, but your death-defying milage may vary.

Maybe the developers of Ski Safari will eventually see fit to make a James Bond-esque version of their game complete with bad guys on black snowmobiles, machine guns and deadly helicopters chasing you, but until they do, this is the next next best thing. Have fun and do try and come back in one piece, 007!

Ramp Champ’s Ticket to Ride

Back when Ramp Champ was released for the iPhone in August of 2009, it was one of only a handful of boardwalk style games in the App Store. Although it had taken much longer to produce than we had initially thought, all of us at the Iconfactory and DS Media Labs were proud of the effort. From its pixel-perfect artwork, and the fantastic original soundtrack to the design of Ramp Champ’s in-app purchases, every part was crafted with love. I wrote back then that the game was a huge risk for us as developers, but no matter what happened, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. All of us had tons of fun creating the game and the effort was hugely rewarding. Fans loved the rich graphics and cleverly designed puzzles that brought back memories of arcades and boardwalks long gone.

Shortly after Ramp Champ’s release, Skee-Ball by Freeverse hit the App Store and quickly stole Ramp Champ’s momentum. Skee-Ball was limited in its game play and far less graphically rich than Ramp Champ, but thanks to its straight-forward approach and realistic 3D physics, it became a huge hit. With Skee-Ball’s success, dreams of hitting the top 25 of the App Store quickly faded and although the game held its own, it never rose to the level that we had hoped it would. We produced several new add-on ramp packs for the game, but both the Iconfactory’s and DS’s resources were limited and we each turned our attention to other projects.

With the advent of the iPhone 4′s retina display 4 in June of 2010, Ramp Champ fans clamored for an updated version of the game with new high-resoultion graphics. The problem was that most of the content for the game was produced using raster (bit-mapped) graphics, not scaleable vectors and re-creating the entire game for retina proved cost prohibitive. For a while there was talk of a sequel that would be designed around all new vector graphics, and an internal prototype was even built, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes it’s difficult for small companies to devote time and money to a project when success is far from assured and such was the case with Ramp Champ. Its future seemed bleak indeed.

Then near the end of 2011, Ben Stahlhood and I started talking about DS Media Labs taking the reins of our favorite gaming son. DS had gone through some restructuring and was hiring fresh new talent to position themselves well for 2012. It’s always tough handing one of your most treasured creations to another to foster, but with Ramp Champ the move made sense. DS had been a fantastic partner in the game’s creation and we knew that if anyone was going to give Ramp Champ a bright future it would be them. With our development efforts focused on xScope, Twitterrific and the upcoming Astronut for iPad, we finalized the arrangement and I’m pleased with the result. I don’t know what’s in store for Ramp Champ any more than you do, but DS’s recent press release promises at least updated retina graphics, and I’m confident there will be much more to come after that.

All of us at the Iconfactory wish Ben and the gang at DS Media Labs all the best in their success. We look forward to rolling balls, knocking down those damn ducks and collecting tickets for even bigger and better prizes when Ramp Champ ultimately gets the update it so badly deserves. Good luck gang!

Review: Paper for iPad

There are literally dozens of drawing/painting apps for iOS. Some of my favorites include Procreate, Penultimate, ArtRage and now Paper from FiftyThree, Inc. This new app burst onto the App Store recently and has been receiving a great deal of attention for its fresh approach to the genre of the sketch app. Much has already been written about Paper and so I’m going to try and cut right to the chase with my review by detailing things the app does well and areas where it’s lacking. If you want to know how Paper may or may not fit into your work flow, then by all means read on.

The Good

Simplicity

Above everything else, Paper keeps the interaction between the app and the user simple. This design decision is by far its greatest asset, but it is also its greatest weakness (more on this later). Getting into your sketchbook and starting work is dead simple. Thumb through drawings, access tools, and draw away. You can also add pages to your sketchbooks and share your work via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or email. There doesn’t seem to be a way to send drawings to the camera roll, but taking a quick screen shot does the job in a pinch. The entire app feels light, easy to get around in and, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from being over-designed.

Brushes

Paper has one of the best media engines I’ve ever encountered in a painting or drawing app. The pencil tool as well as the watercolor brush behave almost like their real world counterparts and are a sheer joy to use. Drawing speed helps determine stroke width with certain tools, and opacity with others. The overall effect is wonderful.

In-App Purchases

Some will say this isn’t a plus for an app like Paper. Many users don’t appreciate having to unlock functionality inside of an app that they thought was initially free, but Paper’s implementation of their in-app purchases is extremely well done. You buy only the tools you want and the app even lets you test drive the brushes prior to purchase so you can get a feel for them. Finally, there is an “Essentials” bundle that gives a small discount compared to buying all of the individual tools separately. If I find an app compelling, I certainly don’t mind paying for it and Paper’s in-app purchase model lets me pick and choose the parts I like most.

The Details

Customize the cover of your sketchbooks. Blend colors with the paint brush. Effortlessly flip between drawings that beautifully highlight your work. The devil is in the details and Paper does a deft job of getting them right.

Could Be Better

Rewind/Undo

The two-fingered gesture to step back (or forward) through your drawing is clumsy. Often times it takes me far longer to get to just the proper undo point with the gesture than it would if undoing was a simple button. I also sometimes make stray marks on the page when attempting to make the undo gesture. In addition, the number of undo states is far too small, especially when using techniques like cross-hatching. I also wish that rewinding would take you back through drawing a stroke little by little, but it doesn’t, it removes the last stroke in its entirety.

Colors

The selection of colors in Paper is extremely limited. There are a total of nine to choose from and of those, none of them are any shade of blue. The developer encourages users to go old school and mix colors to form new ones but the inability to select custom colors is a major deal breaker. I can’t use the app to sketch concepts for clients (or even myself) if I don’t have access to the entire range of colors I need, especially ones like blue and red.

Landscape

The app is perpetually locked in landscape mode and it’s extremely frustrating. I presume the developers did this to accommodate the wide screen design of the main menu, but I sincerely hope they add the ability to use Paper in portrait eventually.

Immutable Drawings

Unlike many other drawing/painting apps, once you place a mark on the page, that’s where it stays. There is no way to re-position a drawing or even a portion of one once it’s made. Some would say this simply echos a real-life sketch pad, but if I wanted a real sketch pad I would use one. I use Paper and apps like it because they give me additional flexibility when creating. Not being able to re-position elements on the page is frustrating and feels antithetical to the app’s overall design.

The Bad

Zooming

I want the ability to be able to zoom in and add details to my sketches or out and fill larger areas with colors quickly. Adding zooming would almost eliminate the need for various brush sizes, so if I had to choose between the two I’d take zooming. In addition, my brand new retina iPad has millions of pixels at its disposal. Paper’s lack of pinch zoom means a good many of them are going to waste.

Fills

The app desperately needs a fill tool. The watercolor brush does an inadequate job of filling large areas with solid colors and sometimes that’s just what you need. I’d love to be able to sketch in white pencil on black paper, but that isn’t possible in Paper. A fill tool would rectify this glaring deficiency rather nicely.

Sortable, editable layers would have been nice here.
Layers

Adding layers ala Photoshop would significantly increase the app’s complexity and FiftyThree may be unwilling to go there just yet which is fine. I do hope it comes eventually however because I often wish for the ability to erase or tweak individual elements of a sketch independently of the rest. I’m sure the talented folks there could find a way to add drawing layers to Paper in a simple and elegant fashion. I’d also like a way to lock a sketch once it’s done so I don’t accidentally add stray marks, which seems to happen often.

Conclusions

If you’re looking for a simple, straight forward tool for sketching you’ll probably find Paper both fun and elegant. I suspect this is what Daring Fireball author John Gruber meant when he said the app was “Exquisitely well-done”. I wouldn’t go that far but there’s a great deal to like in FifthThree’s initial effort. The app is a testament to beautiful user interface design, unfortunately it lacks too many features in my opinion to be used as anything more than a simple notebook. Paper’s limited undo states, narrow color palette, in-ability to re-position elements on the page and lack of zooming all force me to turn to other drawing apps when I want to truly create.

The good news is that Paper is a 1.0 product and as such I’m confident that improvements will come quickly. If the app simply added a long tap on color wells to bring up a picker and the ability to zoom in and out of a drawing, Paper would instantly become about 10x as useful as it is now. Since the app is free to try with the built-in quill pen, there’s no reason not to download and check it out yourself. I’ve definitely enjoyed exploring the app and it’s given me new reasons to try drawing with various styluses, but that’s blog post for another day.

My friend Dave Caolo recently told me that his kids love Paper. They each have their own sketchbooks and enjoy doodling and coloring very much. This comment is telling because right now Paper feels very much like a kids app. It has lots of potential but it’s too immature to really be useful. In their quest to make a dead simple iPad sketch app, FiftyThree may have sacrificed a bit too much functionality. Paper may be just what you’re looking for to jot down notes and quick sketches on the go, but I personally hope FiftyThree eventually lets Paper sit at the grown-up table.

Retina iPad Roundtable

Rene Ritchie, Seth Clifford and Marc Edwards invited myself and App Cubby’s David Barnard to discuss the new retina iPad last week. Ep. 18 of the IterateTV podcast ended up being a smart discussion of the new devices’s strengths and weaknesses, tools and processes we use to develop for it and our take on the future of resolution independence. I spend some time talking about the Iconfactory’s upcoming retina work on Carcassonne and generally try to keep up with the huge brains of the fine fellows gathered around the microphone. If you design for iOS or just want to hear our take on Apple’s new hardware, check it out.

Effortless Unboxing

Apple already has one of the best unboxing experiences of any company on the planet. The industrial, packaging and graphic designers have gone to considerable pains to make sure that customers are extremely satisfied when they first open and activate their new Apple hardware. With iOS 5′s ‘PC Free’ technology, in combination with iCloud, Apple’s customers no longer need to attach their new iPhone or iPad to a desktop computer to start using it. All this is wonderful, but could Apple’s unboxing experience be even better?

Yes it could.

Imagine opening your new iPad that arrives by FedEx this morning, turning on the device and finding it already ready to use. No input of your Apple ID, no syncing of contacts, bookmarks or even apps. You turn the iPad on and it’s ready to go. Using the online ordering service via Apple.com in conjunction with your existing Apple ID, this kind of effortless unboxing experience could easily become reality. Ask any Kindle owner how awesome it is power on their new device and find all their books already there, ready to read. I could easily see an option at the end of Apple’s online ordering system that would give permission to use your Apple ID to pre-sync your new iDevice with your iCloud content.

There’s something to be said for the actual process of setting up your gadgets. The geek in us loves the discovery and rush we get from seeing, touching and exploring new technology and in that way, perhaps the current unboxing experience is superior. It gives Apple a chance to highlight just how elegant the process really is. That said, Apple is always designing for the 80%, not the geek and if that means giving customers the ability to simply open the box and go, I’m sure we’ll see it in the very near future.

[Hat tip: @BigZaphod @dlanham and @TandyQ contributed to this post]